AFRICANGLOBE – In a grainy video, a woman with flowing dreadlocks strolls through a market in Cuba, smelling spices and smiling at the camera. In another scene, she is wearing a black T-shirt, her long hair parted to reveal the words “framed, jailed, exile.”
In the video, Assata Shakur’s voice is high-pitched and soft, out of sync with the fact that she is, according to American law a fugitive convicted of the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. The footage comes from a documentary filmed in Cuba where Assata Shakur — a.k.a. Joanne Deborah Chesimard — has lived since the early 1980s under political asylum. It is a celebration of her liberation politics. In it she calls herself a revolutionary seeking freedom for “my people.”
Assata Shakur’s 1977 conviction and later escape from prison have made her an icon of Black power enthusiasts. Last week, it also made her the first woman ever to be named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
It is the decision to add Assata Shakur, 65, to the list of terrorists that has reopened old debates about radicalism and America’s racial politics of the early 1970s while spurring discussion about the meaning of “domestic terrorism.”
There is no question that Assata Shakur was on the scene when the state trooper was killed. But does she belong on a list that includes affiliates of international jihadist groups?
To begin to answer the question, one must understand Assata Shakur, the crime for which she was convicted, and the efforts to define that crime as an act of terrorism.
One must also grapple with the 100 or so working definitions of “domestic terrorist.”
Assata Shakur Shedding a ‘Slave Name’
Assata Shakur was born in the Jamaica neighborhood of the New York borough of Queens, although she spent much of her childhood in North Carolina. In her 20s she returned to New York and became involved with the Black Panther Party.
It was there, in the late 1960s, that she shed what she called her “slave name” for Assata Shakur — a surname that she adopted as a member of the Black Panthers, whose adherents armed themselves as a show of force while also running a free breakfast program and other anti-poverty initiatives.
“She was part of the Pan-African revolutionary sentiment in the wake of Malcolm X’s death,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University and author of “Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.” “By the late ’60s, millions are involved in the Black power movement, most just by growing out their Afros.”
Assata Shakur’s involvement was deeper than sit-ins and protests; her activism was of the sort that led to open discussion of the possibility of a race war. She was among the “self-styled revolutionaries who committed acts of violence that they defined as revolutionary, inspired by guerrilla revolts in places like Cuba,” said Joseph, who does not condone violent actions.
Assata Shakur hasn’t given an interview for nearly a decade, said scholars who have studied the Black power movement, and she could not be reached for this article. She did write an open letter in 1998 to Pope John Paul II after the New Jersey State Police asked him to call for her extradition during a visit to Cuba. It was aired on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” news program in the late 1990s and has been rebroadcast in recent days.
“I have advocated and I still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the United States,” Shakur wrote. “I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.”
She has consistently maintained her innocence on the murder charges that sent her to prison. She has said that her hands were up when she was wounded and that she did not shoot the trooper.
A Fatal Confrontation
On this there is no disagreement: Assata Shakur was on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973, when she and two other members of the Black Liberation Army were pulled over by two state troopers. There was a confrontation, and State Trooper Werner Foerster and a BLA member were killed.
Assata Shakur was found guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and other crimes in 1977 and was sentenced to life in prison, according to the police statement. Less than two years later, she escaped from prison with the help of a coalition of radical groups called “the Collective,” which took two guards hostage during an armed assault at the New Jersey prison where she was being held. They ushered Shakur to a getaway team, and she later resurfaced in Cuba. Since her escape, she has been charged with unlawful flight to avoid confinement.
On May 2, Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, presided over a news conference on the 40th anniversary of Foerster’s killing. Fuentes called Shakur a “domestic terrorist.” Although labeling Assata Shakur a terrorist does not change the charges against her, it does increase public awareness of her case and her identity. It has also spurred the state to pledge $1 million as a reward for her capture, bringing the total reward to $2 million when coupled with the FBI’s standing $1 million pledge.
Fuentes teaches every new crop of troopers about Assata Shakur, whom he calls Chesimard.
“There is no such thing as a routine motor vehicle stop,” Fuentes said. “This has been one of the most notorious cases in the annals of our history.”
According to police accounts, Shakur and the two other Black Liberation Army members opened fire on the two troopers who pulled them over for a “broken tail light.”